Rachel Garringer 


It was the great number of vultures that eventually led him there.  He had been up in the barn loft throwing hay down into the manger through the square hole in the floor.  “I love the way it smells,” she had said, as she’d broken apart the flakes of hay with her thick veined hands, spreading them evenly throughout the manger.  Rick shook his head as if to shake her out of it. He walked towards the gaping window of the barn loft, through the hay dust dancing in the morning light, and leaned against the edge of it, standing a good twelve feet off the ground.  The barn swallows had just returned, and they’d been fussing at him all morning.  Chastising him with their chatter.  Diving at his head.  As a child, in this same barn, he had been terrified of them.  Had believed that they would not swerve at the last minute, but that one would instead gouge out his eye with unfathomable accuracy, and without pause continue on its acrobatic flight, his eye grasped in its beak.  

“I wish I was a swallow,” she’d said.  “They fly south every year because they have to, to survive.  The only humans who get to do that are rich or old.”  He had laughed when she said it. Pulled her against him and kissed her forehead.  He had thought she was joking, but in the end it was the winter that had truly killed them.  Maybe it could have worked if we’d gone.  Just found the goddamned money and gone back to Texas like she wanted.  Left Rob to run the farm and take care of Mom.  These thoughts were poison.  He knew.  Not even the great open skies over Texas could have fixed them.  From the beginning they were like two halves of separate broken mugs trying to make their sharp edges fit.  Trying to hold water, but always leaking.  

He looked out over the farm again, and his eyes carried up to the sky above it.  To where the vultures circled.  At least two dozen of them.  Something big.  Deer maybe.  He imagined the coyotes took it down but did not eat it, as was their way in the spring when teaching their young to hunt.  He was grateful that they had not taken any lambs this year.  

                                   “Coming upon him shoveling manure out of the barn she’d start                                                        up, ‘Well, you say I’m a made just to fit your plans,                                                                         but will a barnyard shovel fit your hands?’” 

The next day in town at the grocery store he felt as if he had river stones tied to the bottoms of his feet.  He had not realized before how much space the absence of something can fill.  On the drive home, Loretta, her favorite.  “You’re lookin’ at country.”  She’d sing it and grin.  Looking over the top of her lopsided glasses while she chopped kindling in the fall.  When the snows were light and just barely coated the world.  When she thought winter would be something fun. Something exciting and new.  Coming upon him shoveling manure out of the barn she’d start up, “Well, you say I’m a made just to fit your plans, but will a barnyard shovel fit your hands?” Back then she’d thought life on the farm was novel.  Quaint and old-fashioned.  Charming even. She thought it would be perfect like in the songs, because in fact she knew nothing about the country except for a handful of country songs.  Back before the mud, the ice, the slush, the chains, the constant battle to keep the house warm.  

He watched TV all night.  Stupid mindless crap, like junk food for his brain or a blinder for his thoughts.  He slept poorly.  Tossing and turning, and dreaming nightmarish sequences of finding her and Rob in the granary, their deceit all too clear if not explicit.  He woke up pissed off, finished his thick black coffee and peanut butter toast without tasting either, and went out to the barn to check for lambs.  

Normally, if anything was to go wrong, it was that the lambs came too early.  The ram jumping the fence and getting to the herd before time.  But this year, they were a late crop.  He was not even sure how this had happened.  He had felt drugged when Katy was around.  The ewes had all lambed but three and he hadn’t lost a single one.  There were twelve sets of triplets, late but worth it.  None had lambed in the night, so he brought fresh water and hay to the ewes with newborns in the lambing pens, gave them each a scoop of sweet feed, and poured two buckets full into the feeding trough out in the fold for the ewes with older lambs.  He watched them eat.  Listened to the sound of their jaws crunching through wheat and corn.  The smell of molasses and lanolin and grass.  The lambs ran in gangs back and forth at the far end of the fold.  Leaping and bucking.  

                                   “Once you crossed through the brush at the forest’s edge, it was                                          cool and dark inside the woods. Though the spring leaves were                                              not yet full grown, they had already changed the forest.                                                        Turned it wild and close. Not the long views and                                                                           cathedral feel of winter.”

He looked out over the pasture beyond, and his eyes found the vultures again.  Still circling. Even more of them now.  More than he’d ever seen.  More than a deer would attract.  He took the empty buckets back to the granary, and hung them up on a nail.  He set out walking back through the field that curled around the edge of the mountain behind the barn.  It looked as if it would end, and then around the bend it opened up farther and farther, until it finally narrowed and came to a sharp point.  The fence line ran just outside of the tree line.  Once you crossed through the brush at the forest’s edge, it was cool and dark inside the woods.  Though the spring leaves were not yet full grown, they had already changed the forest.  Turned it wild and close.  Not the long views and cathedral feel of winter.  

He crossed the creek and climbed up to the spine of the ridge.  Followed it up to its highest point where it curved around and met the ridge on the Miller’s side.  He followed theirs down. He couldn’t see the vultures anymore through the leaves, but he had a rough idea of where they were.  He knew this land.  It had raised him.  And he had ached for it when he was gone.  Had ached for the rain too from the dry heat of Texas.  The country music down there had been divine, but the bluegrass had been too sugarcoated.  Like the women.  Texas women were all blue skies and sunshine, but even the sweetest girls back home had storm clouds inside.  He’d felt like he couldn’t rest with all that brightness.  Like he couldn’t slow down.  As he came out into the high fields on the Miller place he stopped, always stunned by the view of the mountains rolling off into the West.  He hadn’t been up here in years.  He could see the vultures again circling above the trees at the other end of the long clearing.  Where the cave was.  Could be something got stuck down the sinkhole and died.  

He walked slowly across the field.  Half way across he smelled it.  The pungent scent of rot. It became overpowering long before he reached the sinkhole.  By the time he had reached the edge he was gagging and coughing at the stench.  He took off his long sleeve shirt and tied it over his nose and mouth.  At the bottom of the sinkhole was a crawl space barely big enough for a man to pass through.  It opened up five feet in to a low ceilinged room, long and twisting, until suddenly the floor dropped.  A fifty foot cliff down into the huge cavern.  Dark.  Silent except for the sound of dripping.  

He could see something near the entrance to the cave.  Brush covered it.  That is no bear. He finally let his mind free on those words.  There was a color.  Blue or Dark Purple.  And some white.  There were vultures down in the brush working away at it, and others circling above.  He picked up a stick and threw it towards them.  They squawked and glared at him, almost hissing. He threw another and another, until they flew heavily up, and rested on the lowest branches of nearby trees.  Their red featherless heads uncannily resembling the mess they had made below, which he could see faintly through the brush.  They watched him, and he felt like prey. 

It was a body.  Human.  Not bear or deer.  As he threw the brush aside, piece by piece, the reality sunk in.  The feet, then legs, then torso, then all of it in gruesome horror.  The vultures had taken the eyes.  Bright pink soft areas left behind.  They had gone for the tongue as well. The mouth a bloody mess.  They had even begun on the fleshy spot between the index finger and thumb of the right hand.  And the intestines too. They had gone through the purple t-shirt, formed a hole in the middle, and begun their feast.  He retched up his breakfast now.  It burned in his mouth and nose.  He was grateful for the taste of it, for it blocked out the putrid air.  

It was the Smith boy.  The oldest child.  Lucas.  16 at the most.  Rick had gone to buy a Suffolk Ram off of the boy’s father, Paul, a couple years back.  Lucas had still seemed a child then.  His younger brothers ran around the barn with the men, talking farm talk, showing off. Lucas had stayed inside with his mother, Pam, helping her set the table for dinner.  

“My sensitive one,” she had called him, her love for this boy evident in the lines around her eyes when she looked at him.  

“Your pansy-ass queer.” Paul had said.  Loud.  Clear.  All of them heard it:  the boy, his brothers.  The boy didn’t look up.  Didn’t say a word.  Poured iced tea into the flower covered glasses on the table, and set the pitcher down gently.  He wiped the condensation off of his hands onto the hips of his jeans.

On the drive home that evening, with the ram in the back of the truck, Rick had thought of the party in Bill Murphy’s hay field the summer after they graduated.  The bonfire had been fifteen feet high and he noticed that someone had stolen desks from school, and that the metal legs reflected the flames from within.  Rick had been a week away from leaving for college.  Out of state.  Liberal Arts.  Paul had called him a pussy when he’d refused to do a keg stand, and Rick couldn’t believe the words as they came out of his own mouth, saying, “Someday you’re gonna grow up and be nothing but a sad fat stupid man like your Daddy, Paul.”  The crowd had snickered.  They’d fought then.  Paul thick, but slow with beer.  Rick small, but quick with sobriety.  He had gotten Paul belly up on his back, decided not to hit him one last time, and walked away. 

At the bottom of the hill, where the cars and trucks were parked messily, Rick had found Pam sitting on Paul’s tailgate crying.  “I’m pregnant,” she’d said.  Pam was a rising senior.  She and Rick had competed for the highest grade in Chemistry.  She always let Paul cheat off of her, and took the blame when they got caught.  Rick had hugged her against his thin body, aware of his smallness in comparison to Paul, and the reek of his own nervous sweat from the fight.  He wished his father could have seen him, holding a pretty girl against his chest, like a man for once. He’d felt her tears soaking through his t-shirt, and the warmth of her breath through the cloth.


After Don came, who Rick still couldn’t believe was the Sheriff, with his boys young and cocky, muscles rippling; after Rick gave his testimony; after he found out that Paul Smith hadn’t even called in to report Lucas missing though the vultures had been circling for at least four days and school was still in session; after all of this, Rick had led them through the woods.  The cops huffed and puffed up the hill in their stiff uniforms.  They’d dragged the body out of the sinkhole, and carried it down through the woods on a stretcher.  Rick sat on his porch drinking a Bud while they loaded it into the Ambulance.  It drove off slow.  Bumping up the dirt driveway. Didn’t even turn on the lights.  Don asked Rick to come home with him, have dinner with Shirley and their boys.  They’d all been to grade school together:  Rick, Don, and Shirley.  But Rick said “No.”

The younger cops stood smoking next to their cars.  Talking in low murmurs.  Don was alone, by his car, filling out paperwork on a clipboard, when Rick heard one of the younger men say, “Little faggot had it coming.” He heard the rest laugh.  Don didn’t seem to hear it.  Rick put down his beer, walked into the house, and got his rifle down off the wall.  The one he used for shooting coyotes or dogs.  He walked out onto the porch.  Aimed at the back of the cop’s head who’d said it.  

“What’d you say?” Rick asked.

The young cop whipped around.  His buddies had seen Rick first.  The young man must have seen the look of fear cross their faces before he turned, because he already had his hands up above his head by the time he faced Rick, but he said nothing.

“What. Did. You. Say?” Rick asked again.

“Whoa, whoa, Rick! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”  Don had only just looked up from his notes.

“What the FUCK did you say?”  Rick had raised his voice now.  Don looked at the cop.  

“What did you say, son?”  He asked him.  The man swallowed hard.  He still said nothing, but glared.

  “He said the little faggot had it coming,” Rick answered for him.  

Don looked at Rick, then back to his officer, then back to Rick, then he barked, “Officer Thomas, get in your car!  Get out of here!  All of you!”  The young men jumped in their cars like teenagers who’d been caught smoking a joint.  Rick held the gun on Officer Thomas’ car until it was out of sight, and still he stood there, gun raised, glaring down the barrel of it.  

“Rick.  He’s gone.  Put it down.”

“I bet you Officer Thomas’ old man had it done.”
“Hey now! Rick, it’s been a long day…”

“Jesus Don!  Like you didn’t hear the rumors.  The kid was there all the time.  Spent the night.”

“Rick, you aren’t thinkin’ straight.  They’re good people.  Church people.  You can’t say things like that.”

“Old man hired Lucas to mow the lawn but not a soul ever saw him in the yard?  Old bastard’s wife was threatening to leave him after twenty five years?  The whole damn county’s been talking, Don.  If I’ve heard it, you damn sure have.”

Don’s jaw muscles rippled.  Rick couldn’t read the expression on his face, even though they’d both lost their virginity on the same night in the same truck bed with the same girl. When Don finally spoke his voice was deep and quiet.  “Rick, you were always smarter than the rest of us, but you still haven’t learned when to keep your mouth shut.  You’d best get some rest before you start accusing people you shouldn’t.”

                                     “Rick heard the tires crunching on gravel.  Heard them spin out                                              onto the paved one lane road.  Heard the crickets, then a                                                bullfrog, then the high lonesome wail of a coyote followed                                              by the eerie yipping of its pups.  He was shaking.”

     “Get off my land, Don.” Rick pointed the gun at him.  Don stared at him without blinking, then got in his car, pulled the door closed, and started it.  He leaned out the window before he pulled away.  Rick saw concern on his face.  Saw that it looked out of place there.  Don opened his mouth as if to speak, but retreated back into the darkness of the car and pulled away.  Rick heard the tires crunching on gravel.  Heard them spin out onto the paved one lane road.  Heard the crickets, then a bullfrog, then the high lonesome wail of a coyote followed by the eerie yipping of its pups.  He was shaking.  He wanted to call Katy.  She wouldn’t get it.  Any of it.  She didn’t understand anything he knew was truth. 

  He walked out towards the barn, still carrying his gun, and sat, leaning against the old burr oak tree where the kettle of vultures had roosted during the summer he turned sixteen.  In the evenings after dinner while his sisters had washed dishes, he would sit at the edge of the yard and watch the vultures as they rode the air currents up and up, circling slowly, until they almost disappeared.  Then they would shift their wings slightly and drop down to roost in the upper branches of the tree.  Their wings had gathered the air with great gulping noises, and he had envied how they slept there, night after night.  A dozen of them or more.  Together out in the clear darkness.  With the air against the shriveled red skin of their heads.  With the great black sky above them.  With their feet on the branches of a burr oak tree whose roots ran deep underground.  But with the knowledge, too, that in the morning, they had only to lift their wings to soar up over the western mountains and away.



Rachel Garringer grew up on a sheep farm and former commune in Southern West Virginia. She attended Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she majored in gender studies, labor history and woodcut printmaking. She then attended the School of Honky Tonk Heartbreak in Austin, Texas, where she majored in biking through rush hour traffic with minimal injuries, eating Migas for breakfast, and not getting dizzy while two stepping.  Rachel now lives back home in West Virginia, where she works as a youth advocate, makes art, plans her dream farm, writes, and interviews people for various oral history projects.  She attended her first writing workshop at the Hindman Settlement School's 2013 Appalachian Writers Workshop. "Vultures" is her first published work.